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Chapter Fourteen: The Christian Church Comes


When Jesus was crucified, all seemed to be lost. This Galilean who had aroused such hope had gone the way of a common criminal. Even his disciples had betrayed him or denied that they knew him. Then, on the morning after the Sabbath, two women named Mary discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty. They saw an angel wearing a white robe who said that Jesus had risen from the dead. The news electrified his followers; for the fact of resurrection put Jesus into a supernatural state like that of the expected Messiah.

The belief that Jesus was this Messiah caused those who had known him in his earthly career to preach the Gospel of the risen Christ. That activity generated one of the most remarkable movements in the history of the world. The “Kingdom of God” may not have come as expected, but a spiritual kingdom focused on Jesus, the church, did come. It had a remarkable history.

Its Early Heritage

As the story of Jesus combines elements of political history, prophetic scripture, and personal action, so the history of the church involves some of the same elements. When Christianity began, it had only a small group of Jesus’ followers, memories of his earthly activities and teachings, and belief in his resurrection. His followers now looked forward to Jesus’ return as a Messiah who would arrive on the clouds of heaven. It was this belief which held the group together after Jesus’ death and attracted converts to Christianity as a religion.

The New Testament provides a scriptural record of Christianity in its early days. It combines stories of Jesus and of the early Christian community with the sayings and teachings of Jesus and writings of the Apostles. The most important part of the New Testament would be the four Gospels. Until they were written, knowledge of Jesus’ life was held in the memories of persons who knew him. Stories about him circulated by word of mouth. Matthew and Mark, the two oldest Gospels, were written around 70 A.D. in a period when the Romans were destroying Jerusalem. The Gospel of Luke was written between 70 A.D. and 100 A.D; and that of John, in the early part of the 2nd century A.D.

The New Testament book titled Acts of the Apostles carries the history of the Christian community from Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances through Paul’s arrival in Rome to plead his case before the emperor. Then comes a section containing the letters of Paul and other apostles to Christians in several cities. These letters, written around 50 A.D., predate the Gospel narratives. The final book in the New Testament is the Book of Revelation, which is a Christian prophecy written by John of Patmos near the end of the 1st century A.D.

Organizationally, the early church was split between a group which favored continued observance of Jewish lawsand a group which wished to be rid of law as the Gospel of Christ was preached to Gentiles. A specific issue was whether Gentile converts to Christianity had to be circumcised. Jewish traditionalists favoring that requirement were associated with the Jerusalem church led by James, brother of Jesus. The other group, which argued that Christ’s resurrection had made the Law obsolete, appealed to a broader audience. The apostle Paul was its champion.

Paul was at odds with the prevailing opinion within the church that Jesus would soon return to earth as the triumphant Messiah. Paul developed a rationale for the fact that this event evidently had not yet taken place. He explained that the death and resurrection of Jesus had brought about the Kingdom of God; it was evidenced in increased spiritualization taking place in the world. Yet, Christians have continued to look for a dramatic event that would begin God’s kingdom. The Book of Revelation created a new scenario of the struggle between good and evil in which steadfast Christians were persecuted by earthly kings led by a character known as the Anti-Christ. Believers in a Second Coming take inspiration from it.

Spreading the Word

The early Christians preached the Gospel of the risen Christ. It was a message which met stiff resistance from Jewish traditionalists. A young man named Stephen attacked their attitude in a statement before the High Priest: “How stubborn you are, heathen still at heart and deaf to the truth! You always fight against the Holy Spirit. Like fathers, like sons. Was there ever a prophet whom your fathers did not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One; and now you have betrayed him and murdered him.” (Acts 7: 51-52) True to form, some persons from the audience stoned Stephen. He was the first of many Christian martyrs.

One who held the coats of Stephen’s murderers as they attacked him was Saul, soon to be renamed Paul. He was converted to faith in Jesus by a blinding vision on the road to Damascus. Paul was a Jew schooled both in the Pharisaic writings and in Greek philosophy. He put his intellectual talent to good use in interpreting scriptural issues and setting policy for the church. Paul, Barnabas, and others journeyed to places in the east Mediterranean region preaching the Gospel while admonishing and comforting Christian communities. They found Gentiles receptive to the message that Jesus was Messiah.

In this first generation after the crucifixion, there were many within the Christian community who had known Jesus personally. They remembered what he had said and done. An important undertaking was to reduce this experience to writing so that future generations would have an accurate picture of Jesus in his earthly career. Biblical scholars differ as to whether Matthew or Mark was written first. In any event, the four Gospels and other writings were compiled in the New Testament, a second part of the Bible which followed the Jewish sacred scriptures. Possessing its own literature, Christianity made the crucial transformation from a movement sustained by personal memories to a scripturally based religion.

For much of the 1st century A.D., religious Jews chafed under the yoke of Roman rule. Jesus had set an example of a peaceful Messiah who did not challenge political authority. His sights were set upon a kingdom “not of this world”. During this period, there were Messianic movements and groups such as the Zealots that did up arms against Rome. This approach resulted in Jerusalem’s total destruction in 70 A.D. Christianity’s peaceful policy was proven to be wise. While Rome persecuted Christians, the fact that they accepted martyrdom instead of challenging Roman authority helped to avert mass bloodshed. The community of believers was saved.

The holocaust of 70 A.D. drove Jewish populations from their Judaean homeland to cities throughout the Roman world. Raised with Messianic expectations, they spread the message of the risen Christ. Cities such as Antioch, Corinth, Alexandria, and Rome itself acquired substantial Christian populations. Christian missionaries became engaged in an ideological struggle with Jewish traditionalists, Greek philosophers, and officials of the Roman state. Around 55 A.D. Peter left Antioch for Rome to become head of the church in that city. Both he and Paul died there while tending the flock. Rome became the new center of Christianity.

Struggles within the Roman State

When Rome burned in 64 A.D., the Roman emperor Nero blamed Christians for setting the fires. There followed a period of intense persecution which claimed the lives of Peter, Paul, and many others. Historians tell of Christians being thrown to the lions to amuse crowds at the Coliseum. Yet, there were other reasons why Rome hated the Judaean sect. The early Christians were pacifists who refused to serve in the imperial army. They refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the emperor or honor his spirit. In Roman eyes, they were unpatriotic, morbid types who embraced the slave values of love and submission over those of manly strength. Their irrational faith in a crucified leader mocked the higher truths of philosophy. Their Eucharistic feast smacked of cannibalism.

Even so, many Christians remained steadfast in the faith. Some chose to die rather than pledge allegiance to the pagan state. The blood of the martyrs became seed of the church. In fact, Christianity’s clash with the Roman state was a struggle between competing religions. Emperor worship was the official religion. Additionally, the state used other religions, philosophies, and mystery cults as a means of enlisting popular support. The traditional gods and goddesses of Rome were combined with other people’s gods in a pantheon of national gods to create a spiritual structure mirroring the empire. But the spirits of Rome had to be supreme; and Judeo-Christian monotheism could not accept that arrangement.

Other religions also vied for dominance of the Roman world. The Persian religion of Mithras had a savior-god who slew a bull. The god Jupiter Dolichenus, from northern Syria, was a favorite of Roman soldiers. In Egypt, the cult of Isis and Osiris featured a grieving mother and reborn savior. Manichaeism, an offshoot of Zoroastrianism founded in the third century A.D., gained many converts. The philosophy of neo-Platonism functioned as a religion, as did the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies. Additionally, there were mystery cults such as those devoted to the Phrygian goddess Cybele, Demeter and Persephone in Eleusis, and the Greek god Dionysos, which performed symbolic rituals and promised eternal life.

Within Christianity itself were several sectarian movements spawned by philosophical arguments about the nature of Jesus. Was Jesus a God or was he a man; or was he, perhaps, both? Gnostic Christians, influenced by neo-Platonism, stressed Jesus’ divine nature while tending to ignore his human side. Arian Christians, on the other hand, denied that Jesus was a god, or Son of God, maintaining that he was entirely subservient to God, the Father. Marcion, an advocate of pure love, denied the Law of Moses. Montanus claimed to be the Spirit of Truth promised in the Gospel of John. Pelagius, opposing Augustine’s view of grace, taught that man was inherently good and could willfully defeat sin. Given these different beliefs, the church felt it necessary to impose ideological order. It did so in the name of combating heresies.

So an important role in the church was played by “church fathers”, theologians, and apologists for the faith who opposed divergent religious views and kept the faithful on the right track. In Roman times, Justin Martyr defended Christianity against criticisms brought by pagan philosophers and Jewish traditionalists. He responded to the charge of “atheism” which supporters of emperor worship leveled against the church. Tertullian refuted the idea that Christians were disloyal to the Roman state. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, composed a liturgy and effectively protected the interests of the church against the Roman state. Origen, a scholar of Biblical texts, reconciled Christian teaching with tenets of Greek philosophy. Jerome created a Latin version of the Bible. The greatest theologian, perhaps, was Augustine who wrote “The City of God” to explain how God could allow Rome to fall into ruin after the barbarian devastations of Italy and North Africa. He is chiefly responsible for the doctrine of Original Sin.

Christianity was out of favor, if not actively persecuted, during the first three centuries of its existence. As its strength grew, Roman emperors starting in the mid 3rd century A.D. tried to stamp out this threatening religion. Some of the worst persecution came under emperors Diocletian and Galerius. The situation was about to change. Galerius, on his death bed, revoked his previous anti-Christian edicts in 411 A.D. and granted freedom of worship. In the following year, Constantine converted to Christianity. Having abandoned their former pacifism, Christians were by now well-represented within the Roman army. Legend has it that Constantine, in a dream, saw two Greek letters representing the name of Christ together with the words “with this sign you will be victorious”. He ordered his soldiers to paint that slogan on their shields. Constantine went on to win a battle against Maxentius, a rival contender for the imperial throne, and then to defeat another rival to gain the supreme power.

Christianity as Rome’s State Religion

After consolidating his political power, Constantine became an active patron of the Christian church. Yet, he also remained loyal to the cult of Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered Sun”) and retained the title of Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of Rome’s civic religion. Two actions undertaken during his reign were of importance to the church. First, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to decide the matter of Christ’s identity. The formulation worked out in the Nicaean creed - that Jesus was both God and man and a member of the Trinity - became the basis of Christian orthodoxy. Second, Constantine created a second capital city on the Bosporus straights to improve imperial administration. The two capitals at Rome and at Constantinople became centers of western (Roman Catholic) and eastern (Orthodox) Christendom respectively.

Except for Julian the Apostate, Constantine’s nephew, subsequent Roman emperors continued to favor the Christian religion. Gratian (367-83 A.D.) closed temples of non-Christian religions and seized their property. At Ambrose’s urging, Emperor Theodosius I completed the liquidation of rivals at the end of the 4th century. Meanwhile, the neighboring Roman and Persian empires were engaged in a series of wars. This had religious significance in that the Christian and Zoroastrian religions were state religions in their respective spheres. Roman authorities regarded adherents of the Zoroastrian and Manichaean religions as “fifth columnists” potentially sympathetic to Persia while the Persian authorities had similar views of Christians in their realm. On the other hand, Nestorian Christians, persecuted as heretics by the Roman authorities, were given political asylum in Persia.

Even after the Council of Nicaea, controversies about Jesus’ nature persisted. Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, had questioned the idea that the Virgin Mary could give birth to a divine child. His views were condemned at the Council of Ephesus, convened in 431 A.D. The Christian community at Antioch became deeply divided over this question. Nestorius’ followers first emigrated to Persia and then, as missionaries, went to India, China, and central Asia. Monophysite Christianity, which held that Jesus had a single divine nature, arose in reaction to Nestorianism. Derived from the teachings of Eutyches, this doctrine became popular in Syria, Armenia, Egypt, and Abyssinia. The Council of Chalcedon condemned it as a heresy in 451 A.D. The East Roman emperor invalidated that decision buthis successors vacillated. The persecution of Monophysite Christians paved the way for Islam’s quick military victories in Syria and Egypt.

After Christianity became Rome’s state religion, Christians assumed leading positions in Roman society. The monastic movement spread in reaction to the increased worldliness of the church. St. Antony, an Egyptian hermit, pioneered this way of life. In 285 A.D., he withdrew to the desert to pursue a life of solitude. Here Antony was attacked by wild beasts and tempted by womanly apparitions. His ascetic example inspired imitation. A number of other hermits settled around him in the desert. After ignoring them for twenty years, Antony organized these people into a community of monks. Such “Anchorite” monks were given to extravagant feats of self-deprivation. For example, St. Simeon Stylites sat for thirty-five years atop a stone pillar. In time, monastic life evolved into communities where individuals could live in holiness through simple living, contemplation, and prayer. The self-sacrificing monks gave the church models of personal heroism after the age of martyrdom had passed.

Meanwhile, a church hierarchy was being organized along the lines of the imperial structure. Cities that had been chartered as Roman municipalities became seats of Christian bishoprics. The prefectures of the eastern empire were divided between the patriarchates of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople while the patriarchate of Rome assumed authority over the three prefectures of the western empire.

Technically, the Pope was only Bishop of Rome - leader of the Christian community in Rome. He became leader of the entire church by virtue of the apostolic origins of that office. As a spiritual kingdom the Papacy based its authority upon a continuous line of succession running back to Peter. A passage in the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus: “You are Peter, the Rock; and on this rock I will build my church ... I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 16: 18-19)

Even so, the position of the church depended upon political events. The experiences of the western and eastern church were different. In the west, the Roman empire came under attack from invading tribes of Germanic nomads. After the Visigoths defeated the imperial armies at Adrianople in 378 A.D., the empire’s northeastern front became severely exposed. Alaric, king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome in 410 A.D. The west Roman empire from north Africa to Europe was then overrun by barbarian tribes. Odovacer, a barbarian king, deposed the last western emperor in 476 A.D. After that, there was no more Roman government in those territories.

In the east, however, the imperial government headquartered at Constantinople continued to function for another millennium. This meant that the Patriarchate at Constantinople continued under the protection of the east Roman Byzantine government, while the western church at Rome became free-standing. Political Events

After Rome’s Fall

While the western church was politically at the mercy of Germanic kings, it had the advantage of being heir to Rome. The church inherited the cultural prestige of the fallen empire. Barbarian rulers came to believe that only through Christian baptism could they join civilized society. Since earthly rulers held their thrones by divine appointment, the church had the power to confer legitimacy upon particular kings. Alternatively, it could refrain from blessing rulers who opposed its interests. Later, the power to excommunicate individuals - deny them access to Christian sacraments - gave the church much leverage in the world. Pope Leo I (440-61 A.D.) was instrumental in establishing the Roman church as a power separate from that of the Byzantine empire and in separting ecclesiastical and secular authority. Through skilled diplomacy, he persuaded Attila the Hun to abandon his invasion of northern Italy.

St. Patrick, a Christian monk from Britain, converted Ireland to Christianity in the mid 5th century, A.D. The Irish church became a center of learning and evangelical advance. In the 6th century, St. Benedict founded a monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy which stressed service to God. As Christianity spread to northern Europe, the monasteries established in remote places resembled armed garrisons of the Roman state. The disciplined monks were like soldiers of an expanding spiritual empire.

In 597 A.D., Pope Gregory I recruited a Benedictine monk named Augustine to lead a mission to the British Isles. He and his retinue were greeted cordially by King Ethelbert and given land at Canterbury to build a church. His timely arrival in Britain helped check the spread of Irish Christianity which might have challenged Roman Catholicism for leadership of the western church. An agreement reached at the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D. regarding the method of calculating the date of Easter and the shaving of monks’ heads tipped the scales decisively in favor of Rome.

Clovis, king of the Franks, began to create a new European empire in the late 5th century B.C. He conquered the Alamanni tribe in 496 A.D. and the Spanish Visigoths in 507 A.D. By the time of his death in 511 A.D. the Frankish kingdom controlled all of Gaul except for Provence. Clovis’ successors later annexed Thuringia and Burgundy. Unlike other Germanic tribes which had converted to the Arian faith, this dynasty embraced Roman Catholicism. Effectively, they were political allies of the Pope.

The Merovingian dynasty of Clovis was weakened by its practice of dividing territories among several heirs upon a monarch’s death. Major-domos in its household effectively ran the government. One such official, Pippin III, petitioned Pope Zacharias to recognize his family’s claim to the Frankish throne. Upon receiving a favorable response, he deposed the Merovingian ruler and began his own, Carolingian dynasty. In turn, Pippin came to the Pope’s rescue when the Lombards invaded northern Italy and threatened to take Rome.

Pippin’s son, Charles, became sole ruler of the Franks in 771 A.D. when his brother, who was co-ruler, suddenly died. He is today known as Charlemagne. This powerful king annexed the Lombard kingdom in Italy in 773-74 A.D., conquered Saxony between 772 and 802 A.D., and defeated the Avars of Hungary between 791 and 805 A.D. The conquest of Saxony brought Charlemagne’s empire in direct contact with the Danes who responded with naval attacks upon its territory. So began nearly two centuries of Scandinavian marauding along Europe’s northern seacoast.

The Frankish empire under Charlemagne encompassed most of present-day France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries. It was comparable in size to the lands once ruled by the west Roman empire. It seemed that imperial rule might be revived when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day in 800 A.D. However, the Franks’ inheritance rules did not allow this empire to be passed intact to an heir. After his death in 814 A.D. Charlemagne’s three sons divided it into separate domains.

Even so, the office of Holy Roman Emperor continued until 1806 A.D. when the last officeholder renounced the title. It was an elective position which became a secular counterpart to the Pope. A power-sharing arrangement between the religious and temporal (political) authorities controlled medieval society. In theory, the religious authority was the stronger of the two because it came from God. Advancing the doctrine of the “two lights”, Pope Innocent III argued that “the moon derived her light from the sun and is inferior to the sun ... in the same way that royal power derives its dignity from pontifical authority.”

The Papacy was often in conflict with secular authority. In 1077 A.D. Pope Gregory VII kept Emperor Henry IV waiting barefoot in the snow for three days before granting him absolution from excommunication. Henry had previously tried to depose Gregory over the issue of lay investiture: Political rulers wanted power to appoint local clergy while the Pope wanted to retain the power in Rome. The Concordat of Worms finally resolved this issue in the Pope’s favor in 1122 A.D.

The power of the church was based on its ability to control the Christian sacraments. Seven were most important: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony. Church doctrine held that the sacraments were the means by which God transmitted his grace to humanity or, in other words, forgave sins. All men were sinners who were unable to achieve salvation by their own efforts. An ordained priest was needed to perform the required rituals.

With respect to the Eucharist, the Roman church accepted the doctrine that the bread eaten during this ceremony was literally the flesh of Christ and the wine was his blood. Others believed that these substances were merely symbolic. In any event, salvation from sin and death and entrance into Heaven now depended upon ceremonies performed exclusively by ordained priests. Representing a departure from earlier doctrines, this view became an issue in the Protestant reformation. The Roman church had put itself in a position of choosing whom God would bless. It also claimed an unerring ability to interpret scripture and decide theological questions.

Christian Europe also exhibited a flowering of artistic and philosophical culture evidenced in Gothic cathedrals and in theological works such as those of St. Thomas Aquinas. There was an economic and cultural intensity which, in the next phase of history, burst upon the entire world.

The Eastern Church

The Christian church which was headquartered in Constantinople followed another course. A church council held in 381 A.D. had decided that it ranked second after the See of Rome. At the Council of Chalcedon, the Byzantine church was given spiritual authority over western Turkey and the eastern part of the Balkan peninsula. Since the imperial structure at Constantinople remained in place, political rulers there tended to dominate their religious counterparts following the principle which emperor Justinian I had laid down in the 6th century A.D. that “nothing should happen in the Church against the command or will of the Emperor.” So the eastern church became like a department of religion within the Byzantine government.

Eastern or “Orthodox” Christianity put more emphasis upon theological questions and less upon the sacraments than its Roman counterpart. This church accepted neither the formulation of Christ’s identity adopted at the Council of Chalcedon nor that embodied in the Nicene creed: that the holy spirit had proceeded “from the Father and the Son”. Orthodox theologians tended to stress Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity.

A particular issue within the eastern church was a controversy concerning icons. Hoping to curry support among his Jewish and Moslem subjects, Emperor Leo III in 726 A.D. waged a crusade against the use of icons (religious statues or images) in the church. He demanded that these icons be destroyed. His “iconoclastic” reform met with stiff resistance, especially in the monasteries. The controversy continued through the reigns of several emperors and empresses in the 8th century A.D. Finally, a church council decided to ban three-dimensional images but permit two-dimensional ones.

Until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 A.D., the east Roman government continued to rule over territories adjacent to the capital city. This empire had two major enemies during its thousand-year history. First, it was engaged in protracted wars against the Sasanian Persian empire. The last one, the Romano-Persian war of 604 to 628 A.D., was so long and so bloody that both sides were exhausted when another military threat arrived in the form of Islamic armies.

The Moslems quickly extinguished the Sasanian empire and reduced the east Roman empire to a small territory surrounding Constantinople. Arab armies laid siege to the city in 674-678 A.D. and again in 717-18 A.D. but were unable to penetrate its walls. However, the Roman government at Constantinople had to contend with hostile Moslem forces, both Arab and Turkish, until the time that Ottoman Turks captured the city in the 15th century. Bulgarians and Norman French were also a military threat.

The western and eastern churches went their separate way over a theological issue. The eastern church did not accept the “filioque clause” - Father and Son - in the Nicene creed. Pope Leo XV brought on the “Great Schism” by excommunicating Michael Cerularius in 1054 A.D. However, there had been tension between the two churches for some time. The Pope’s coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor challenged the authority of the Byzantine empire and its captive church. “Photianism” - independence from Rome - became a burning issue in the east. After Frankish crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 A.D., it became impossible to reconcile the two branches of Christendom. While the Byzantine emperor did accept Rome’s spiritual authority in the 15th century, his overture came too late to save the empire from Turkish conquest.

What did save Orthodox Christianity was its missionary work among Slavic peoples. In the 9th century A.D., the patriarch of Constantinople had sent a pair of scholarly brothers from Thessalonica, Constantine and Methodius, on a mission to neighboring peoples. They went first to a Slavic kingdom then known as Great Moravia (Czechoslovakia and Hungary). Constantine, also known as Cyril, brought with him the Glagolitic script which he had developed for Slavs. Eventually this script became adapted to the Bulgarian and Russian languages.

Bulgaria converted to the Eastern Orthodox faith in 863 A.D. Missionaries from Bulgaria brought the Old Church Slavonic liturgy and the “Cyrillic” alphabet to Kiev, whose ruler, Vladimir, converted to Orthodox Christianity in 987 A.D. After two centuries of Mongol rule, the dukes of Moscow annexed territories, including the Ukraine, to create the Russian empire. When Ivan III married the last Byzantine emperor’s niece and took the title of “Czar” (Caesar), Moscow became the new center of Orthodox Christianity. A monk called it the “Third Rome”, after Constantinople and Rome itself. Christianity was the cultural thread connecting these capitals.

The Secularizing Effect of the Crusades

The religious ruler of the first Rome, the Pope, enjoyed unchallenged worldly power as the first millennium A.D. ended. However, the worldliness of the Roman church contained the seeds of its undoing. Christianity had begun as a movement among the powerless and poor within society. By medieval times, the church had become powerful and rich, adorning itself with precious works of art. Even more telling, Christianity had abandoned its original pacifism to become an instigator of war. It had orchestrated a holy war against the Moslem rulers of Palestine in a series of increasingly foolish military expeditions known as the Crusades.

Responding to reports that Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were abused by the Moslem authorities, Pope Urban II in 1095 A.D issued an appeal for European Christians to recapture Jerusalem. A large army led by Godfrey of Bouillon was assembled in Constantinople to carry out the Papal mission. “Deus volt” - God wills it! - was the battle cry. In 1099, the crusaders captured the Holy City after a battle in which 70,000 civilians were massacred. A French king was seated upon the throne of Jerusalem.

A second crusade was called fifty years later when the Turks captured Edessa in northeastern Greece from the Latin Kingdom. This one, whose armies pillaged the Byzantine empire en route to Jerusalem, was a complete failure. In the sixth crusade, the Pope excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II for failing to commence hostilities promptly enough. Frederick went through the motions of compliance with the Pope’s command. Upon arriving in the Holy Land, he and the Sultan of Egypt sat down together and, after an amiable discussion, negotiated a sham agreement for Jerusalem’s surrender. In the “Children’s Crusade”, thousands of idealistic boys assembled for embarkation to Palestine were sold into slavery or else perished from hunger and disease. In all, nine crusades were carried out between 1095 and 1272 A.D. In the end, Moslems still ruled Jersualem.

Besides tarnishing the reputation of the church, the Crusades gave the peoples of Europe worldly experiences which led them away from religiosity to other kinds of intellectual, artistic, and commercial pursuits; they were a spur to the Renaissance. The discovery of ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts in Byzantium and other places gave rise to humanist scholarship. The commercial enterprise required to equip and transport large armies in distant places stimulated banking and trade. Meanwhile, the church initiated a bloody campaign against Albigensian heretics in southern France and another against Bohemian followers of John Hus. In the 14th century, the institution of the Papacy was undermined when two rival Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, France, each claimed legitimate succession from St. Peter.

Roman Catholic society did make one remarkable advance. While the Ottoman Turks were extinguishing Christian rule in Constantinople, Christian kings were putting pressure on the Moorish rulers of Spain. By the late 15th Century, the combined kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, ruled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, pushed the Moslems out of the Iberian peninsula. In 1492, the same year when this was accomplished, Christopher Columbus made his first voyage across the Atlantic ocean to the Americas. Here was a new continent to be won for Christ.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a bull dividing all the newly discovered trans-Atlantic territories between Spain and Portugal provided that they convert the native people to Christianity. Protestant English and Dutch, who ignored the Pope’s ruling, began colonizing the east coast of North America a century later. But the Spanish and Portuguese, aided by Jesuit and other priests, did establish Christianity in its Roman Catholic form in South and Central America. This part of the world remains a stronghold of the Christian faith.

The Protestant Reformation and its Aftermath

During the Renaissance, Popes of much worldliness undertook to construct a new St. Peter’s church at the Vatican in Rome. It was adorned with costly sculptures and paintings. To raise money for this and other lavish undertakings, the church aggressively solicited donations. In 1509, the Pope announced a special Jubilee indulgence. When a Dominican preacher arrived in Saxony to promote the new dispensation in 1517, Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg to condemn corruption within the Roman church. This manifesto was widely distributed. Luther was soon branded a heretic. Unlike others so stigmatized in the past, Luther had powerful friends among the German princes. Luther burned a copy of the papal bull condemning his views in a bonfire.

The Protestant Reformation divided the states of Europe into warring camps. Protestant Christians were religious fanatics in the tradition of the Byzantine iconoclasts who abhorred “graven images”. Such images abounded in the Roman church. The Protestants also questioned the cults of the Virgin Mary and Christians saints, the supernatural qualities attributed to the Mass, the ability of sinners to win salvation by receiving church sacraments, and the presumed power of priests to mediate between God and man.

Instead, Luther followed Paul’s lead in teaching that individuals were justified by their faith in Christ. “Scripture alone”, not church dogma, was the source of religious truth. Each worshiper was entitled to learn the truth directly from the Bible; but for that to be effective, the Bible had to be translated from Latin into popular tongues. Christians had to be educated to read scripture themselves.

Catholics responded to the Protestant challenge with reform movements of their own. There were efforts such St. Ignatius Loyola’s Jesuit order to revitalize the faith through spiritual discipline and education. The Jesuits evangelized native peoples in North and South America. They sent missionaries to China, India, and Japan. The Protestants meanwhile split into a number of separate denominations including ones such as the Mennonites, Anabaptists, and Quakers which held radical views.

The most important Protestant figure after Luther, John Calvin, became the theocratic leader of Geneva, Switzerland. His book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, set down theological principles underlying that school of Protestant belief known as Calvinism. The doctrine of “predestination” is among its better-known principles.

The “Thirty Years War”, between 1618 and 1648 A.D., pitted Catholic against Protestant nations. It was among the bloodiest wars in European history. Again, religious warfare had the effect of turning people against religion. Toynbee supposes that it was at this point in history that European intellectuals became weary of theological arguments and channeled their energies instead into natural science. Christianity had again become tainted with blood.

As well, it became tainted with intellectual intolerance as its clerics persecuted scientists such as Galileo. When the established religions in Europe punished religious dissenters, America became a haven for persons with unorthodox views. The French Enlightenment produced a backlash against religion. Writers such as Voltaire railed against religious superstition. Mindful of the dangers inherent in state religion, the framers of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights provided for the separation of church and state.

Today Christians are scattered throughout the world. Proportionately fewer live in Asia, and more in Europe and the Americas. Latin America, heavily Roman Catholic, shows the effect of colonization by Spain and Portugal. Russia and other east European nations retain their Orthodox heritage. The United States, with a larger Protestant population, is denominationally divided along the lines of past immigration from Europe. Equatorial Africa, too, has a burgeoning Christian population because of missionary work and colonization by European states.

All around the earth, Christians continue to evangelize as well as carry on their traditional religious practices. The modern communications media have been harnessed to deliver the Gospel of Jesus Christ even while most Christians continue to read the Bible. Many expect Christ’s return in the near future.

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